“There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’ … for the times they are a-changin’.” Bob Dylan could’ve sung these words about Abraham Lincoln and the nation after Fort Sumter.
Early on, Lincoln told Congress that he had been careful to not let the war “degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.”[i]
Lincoln changes his mind
However, things changed after the slaughter at Shiloh. Historian James McPherson states:
Willy-nilly, the war was becoming a remorseless revolutionary conflict, a total war rather than a limited one.[ii]
Pressure from Radical Republicans
Thaddeus Stevens, congressman from Pennsylvania, thundered, “We must treat this [war] as a radical revolution.” Stevens called for the Union troops to “free every slave, slay every traitor – burn every rebel mansion, if these things be necessary to preserve [the nation].”[iii]
By the fourth year of the war, Lincoln believed in a hard war. He reckoned that God had allowed “this mighty scourge of war” as the consequence of slavery. Lincoln was prepared to see “every drop of blood drawn with the lash” (by slave overseers) be “paid by another [drop of blood] drawn with the sword.”[iv]
Critics cry out
When Northern armies carried out what Lincoln envisioned, his critics complained about outrages such as burning of civilian homes, forced evacuations of entire neighborhoods or districts, and alleged rape. When victims and concerned Union Generals contacted Lincoln, Lincoln was often silent about the outrages or he sometimes praised the commanding generals for their military success.[v]
Few of Lincoln’s generals outshone Sherman, who wanted to “make Georgia howl.” Sherman succeeded in hastening the end of the war. He also left a legacy of multi-generational pain.[vi] A United States military veteran in 2014 said that he couldn’t sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” knowing what Sherman’s troops had done 150 years earlier.
After Sherman captured Atlanta, Lincoln envisioned the end of the war. In his Second Inaugural Address, this believer in a hard war called for a soft peace:
With malice toward none; with charity for all … let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.[vii]
Apparently, Lincoln saw healing as finishing the “work” of war. Lincoln drew upon his King James Bible for a tone of mercy that evoked Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul, both of whom taught that God wanted to make his enemies his friends.
The nation’s loss
After the surrender at Appomattox, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln. When his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, heard the news, he reportedly said:
I am sorry. We have lost our best friend in the court of the enemy.[viii]
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[ii] James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York: 1990), 32.
[iii] Thaddeus Stevens to Lancaster County Republican Convention, Lancaster, PA, 9/3/1862, Beverly Wilson Palmer, ed., The Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens, Vol. I, January 1814-March 1865 (Pittsburgh: 1997), 322, 323.
[iv] Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln, First and Second Inaugural Addresses (Washington, 1909), 40.
[v] William A. Blair, With Malice Toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: 2014), 134-137, 145-146, 151.
[vi] William T. Sherman to Ulysses S. Grant, 10/9/1864, in The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those who Lived it (Library of America, New York: 2014), 362-364.
[vii] Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 40.
[viii] Burke Davis, The Long Surrender: The Dramatic Account of the Collapse of the Confederacy and the Pursuit of Jefferson Davis (New York: 1985).